Some facts about pangasius (basa, swai, Asian catfish) you should know

Regardless of whom I talk to, people only express bad feelings as regards pangasius[1], a fish that ranks among the more sustainable seafood products on this planet. Having lived in Vietnam from 2010 to 2012 and worked in sustainable aquaculture for the last four years, I feel like having to get a few facts right.

It was one of the success stories of the 21st century, when Vietnamese farmers and seafood processors[2] pushed pangasius production from a mere 59 tons in 1996 to 1.3 million tons in 2011[3]. A niche product introduced as a reaction to overfished oceans rapidly became a significant part of Vietnam’s economy providing incomes for thousands of farmers, employees and business owners.
The basis for this success was on one hand very ambitious and hardworking people in Vietnam and on the other the characteristics of the fish they had chosen to grow.

In contrast to other farmed cold water species such as salmon or barramundi, pangasius as a warm water species can be raised from fingerlings that measure a few centimetres up to the harvest weight of 1 to 1.2 kg in no more than six to eight months thanks also to constant warm temperatures in the Mekong Delta, where the farms are located. Consequently, pangasius has a very low feed consumption compared to above mentioned species which have much longer grow-out periods. And unlike the carnivorous species salmon or barramundi, pangasius is an omnivore, thus consuming only little amounts of animal proteins. In contrast to at least five kg of fish oil and fish meal required to produce only one kg of salmon, farmed pangasius grows up with a few hundred grams of animal proteins. An excellent growth performance is also achieved by the fact that the farmed fish are being harvested in a very early stage; in nature they can grow up to a length of 1.30m and a weight of 44kg.

Despite of being “low-energy-low-feed consuming” in contrast to other species, pangasius’ success story started to dwindle since March 2011, when a film team of NDR (Germany) in cooperation with an advisor from WWF Germany published a documentary which was so wrong that one gets sick only thinking about it. What the WWF employee, usually sitting in a well-protected office in Germany and hardly ever been to Asia, offers in this video are no mere than lies[4], portraying a pangasius industry and a Vietnam that have never existed. While primarily targeting at getting public attention (and recognition for the bitter lady) the documentary did more than that: it ruined the whole sector, resulting in decreasing sales and falling prices for an already extremely cheap product. In addition, it put more pressure and public eyes on an industry that had been scrutinized for many years by NGOs and media in the West, most of them not having the least idea about Vietnam, its laws and the local situation. They are ignorant of facts such as Vietnam’s very stringent and well enforced Labour Code, demanding water effluent legislation, the pangasius industry’s low impact on the overall water quality of the Mekong and the huge number of employment it provides in an area that apart from fish farming is probably only good for rice growing.

Today, the pangasius industry is without any doubts the most inspected seafood category. Farms and processing plants have to undergo a whole bunch of certifications to be recognized in Western markets. Periodically there are requirements for additional ones that no other sector faces with the same command. Yet, the low sales prices have never increased over the years, not even as a consequence of rising raw material prices since 2011.

All this has resulted in lower or no profits for Vietnamese processors, bankruptcies, lower salaries for local employees and eventually the emergence of a processing technique that has horrible consequences for quality and (in my view) consumers: in order to crow with low prices, importers and retailers buy products that are artificially inflated with water and polyphosphates[5].
Instead of paying fair prices for a product that deserves it, a large number of them prefer to compete with one another by offering ever lower prices at the cost of serving us products that are full of chemicals. However, to blame the pangasius industry or the species is definitely wrong. Many retailers (mainly in Europe) only buy untreated products from certified producers. They understand the value of pangasius and are willing to pay prices that help safeguard the quality of the products, the health of their consumers, and local employment in Vietnam instead of boosting overfishing of our oceans for the sake of farming of species such as salmon that come with very high negative social and environmental impacts.

Also good to know is that whereas many negative claims about pangasius are wrong, so are good ones for other species and products. In Australia most consumers have been fooled by industry and government teaching them that “Australia was one of the countries with the best-managed fisheries in the world”, wrongly assuming that everything we eat was automatically sustainable. A good management doesn’t exclude destructing fishing techniques or fishing gear[6] nor does it have any consequence for local aquaculture.  There are few Australian aquaculture premises that are either certified or working towards independent certification by an eco-label and to assume that overall seafood in Australia was sustainable because of good fishery management is totally wrong[7].

If people refuse to eat pangasius due to concerns about its sustainability performance, then they must be brainwashed by media who have likely been bought by big Westerner seafood businesses[8]. Compared with many other seafood products, pangasius is a source of animal proteins[9] that should be appreciated for its low environmental impacts by benefiting communities in developing countries instead of a few stakeholders in big enterprises in the West. However, make sure that you buy untreated and certified products and if not available ask your fish shop to offer it[10].

[1] Also known as panga, Asian catfish, striped catfish, basa, swai, Cream Dory or River Cobbler, nowadays farmed pangasius is exclusively of the species Pangasius hypophthalmus.
Ironically, Basa (viet.: Cá Ba sa) is the Vietnamese name for Pangasius bocourti, but given that the Vietnamese name for Pangasius hypophthalmus, Tra (viet.: Cá Tra), is commercially less successful, Basa is (wrongly) used as a trade name instead.

[2] Globally traded pangasius comes mainly from Vietnam and to a very small percentage from Thailand.

[3] That is farm gate (whole fish)

[4] The documentary was called “The Pangasius-Lie” (orign. “Die Pangasius-Lüge”). However, whereas the title should suggest that the pangasius industry was lying, it was producer and the film team who did. Only, that the public didn’t know that.

[5] By applying this technique, it is possible to increase the weight of a fillet of 100g up to 120-130g. This is being done by “soaking” the fillet for several hours in a bath with polyphosphates and water. The polyphosphates bind with proteins in the meat and have the capacity to absorb additional water which leads to an increase of weight. So basically, the weight gain is nothing more than water that is being sold as “virtual fish meat”.

[6] In fact, many fisheries in Australia have very high by-catch rates (protected fish species, sea birds, turtles mammals etc.)

[7] It is as wrong as saying “The mining industry pays very high salaries and has helped certain people in Australia becoming some of the richest citizens on the planet. Consequently, Australians are very wealthy.”

[8] The lead reporter in the infamous pangasius documentary being an employee of WWF, one can’t help but wondering whether she might have been influenced by one of WWF’s big corporate partners, the salmon magnate John Fredriksen.

[9] As a pure vegetarian over many years and now occasional seafood consumer, I still believe that to abstain from eating animal proteins is what we all should aim for.

[10] Despite of being regarded as one of the more stringent aquaculture certification schemes and available since late 2012, ASC certified pangasius is still not available in Australia. In fact, I haven’t come across any certified pangasius in Australia, whereas it seems to be common even for shops with good reputation to sell treated products.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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2 Responses to Some facts about pangasius (basa, swai, Asian catfish) you should know

  1. Justin Roborg-Söndergaard says:

    Interesting article Urs…one cannot be either compliant or complacent as regards what is fed to us by most mainstream organisations. But then I am sure most of us are aware of these antics, or are we? Here is hoping this is so, or are we just willing compliant (a deer in the spotlight) or willing complacent (the scorpion & the frog, where neither survive the journey!)

  2. Justin Roborg-Söndergaard says:

    See the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s – cofounded by WWF – response…

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